The Blossom Hill Killer’s Private Judge

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After taking the life of an elderly married man and dearly loved father, Jennifer Higgins Bradanini was supposed to go to jail for six months, complete 350 hours of community service, pay $183,857 in restitution, and be on probation for two years. Even though the initial sentence was considered lenient, and outraged the victim’s family, the sentence later was unexpectedly modified. The six-month jail time became home confinement with an electronic monitoring device.  Shortly thereafter, Higgins was seen on social media dancing with an ankle bracelet on a rally stage in Los Angeles. In divorce court, a family law judge ordered she didn’t have to work to pay child support, she could pay a private judge instead. In civil court, she asked another judge to order the man who claimed she violated his civil rights to pay her attorney’s fees in an amount of $6,297.50, but her attorneys forgot the proof of service.

Part Two: California’s Private Judges, a Rolling Investigation

By Susan Bassi 

On the eve of the global pandemic, Jennifer Higgins Bradanini, fatally struck and killed Timothy Starkey across from Blossom Hill Elementary School while driving her Range Rover SUV. When Los Gatos police officers arrived on the gruesome scene, they found Higgins “lying in a fetal position on the sidewalk crying hysterically,” according to the police report.  To the horror of parents and neighbors, the scene unfolded on the road they had complained about being unsafe to the town council for years.

Despite a death, curbside confession, and blood samples tainted with a prescription drug – that came with instructions advising against driving – no arrest was made at the scene of the crime. For over seven months, Jenny Higgins was allowed to finish a 2021 political campaign for San Jose City Council. She was prosecuted only after she had lost that election.

As a candidate for the San Jose City Council, Higgins was endorsed by influential organizations.

Neighbors and community members, largely isolated due to county’s emergency Shelter-in-Place orders, took to social media to express outrage at what appeared to be favorable treatment in the criminal justice system.

Facebook post by the victim advocate charity, Mothers Against Murder

According to local news reports, Higgins avoided Santa Clara County’s covid infested jails by posting $100,000 bail and hiring criminal defense attorney Josh Bentley, whose name appears on the financial disclosure forms of Santa Clara County District Attorney, Jeff Rosen.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Form 700

Dancing in Los Angeles on a Get-out-of- Jail FREE Card

As courthouses were closed and covid raced through local jails, Higgins spent less than one day in jail and was whisked through the courts as others waited in jail for months just to get a hearing date.

Widespread local reporting noted that Higgins initially was facing up to six years in prison. Then it became six months in county jail. Ironically, six months was the same sentence that had outraged Bradanini and Stanford law professor Michele Dauber and inspired a campaign to recall Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky, over what was considered a lenient sentence of Brock Turner in a sexual assault case.

Ultimately, Judge Franco would not send Higgins to jail. Instead, he ordered her to a quasi-house arrest and GPS monitoring for three months, with a two-year probation. Higgins was ordered to pay restitution to Starkey’s family in the amount of $183,857. Once probation was successfully completed, and restitution had been paid, Higgins would be able to scrub her criminal record.

Timothy Starkey’s friends and family members, along with victim advocacy groups, outraged over Higgins’ lenient sentence, were further inflamed after Higgins was captured on social media a month into her GPS monitoring and restricted movement orders had been put in place, dancing on a stage in Los Angeles, with celebrities and activists including Barbara Streisand and Alyssa Milano.

A month after breaking out in ankle-bracelet dance moves in Los Angeles, and eight days before her GPS monitoring was set to expire, Jennifer Higgins was again cited for a new traffic violation according to the Santa Clara County Superior Court Public Portal. Virtually all offenders granted probation promise to obey all laws, including traffic laws, during the probation period.

That 2021 traffic violation appears to have had no effect on Higgins’ criminal matter or probation. The court’s public portal suggests the traffic violation has simply vanished.

Political Prosecutions and Protection

Higgins is politically active and connected. So apparently are her lawyers. In addition to organizing the San Jose Women’s March fueled by the #Metoo movement, she campaigned with Stanford Law Professor Michelle Dauber in the controversial 2018 recall of Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky. A group of local residents allege that Higgins’ political connections played a role in what they assert was preferential treatment by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office and DA Jeff Rosen.

Although Higgins was under the influence of prescription medication and, admittedly distracted at the time of Mr. Starkey’s death, the probation report contains more blacked-out, redacted sections that it does text. Most, if not all, of the redactions are illegal and serve to deny the public the right to know what happened on that fateful day Higgins took Tim Starkey’s life. The redactions also effectively silence the victim’s family, who are supposed to be protected by Marsy’s Law when dealing with the criminal justice system.

Neighbors who witnessed the scene of Timothy Starkey’s death recalled how emotional police officers appeared at the sight and images that showed how Starkey had been killed. Body cams would be horrific for victims and jurors to see.  A retired CHP spokesperson noted that the CHP would have assisted in the Blossom Hill Road investigation, at no additional cost to taxpayers. Los Gatos Police declined the offer, electing to keep the investigation in house. An unnecessary cost to taxpayers. Los Gatos police would be the witnesses in a jury trial.  Attorney Josh Bentley would see to it that no such trial would ever happen.

Ultimately Judge Franco saw to it that Higgins would serve no jail time. For his rulings, Judge Franco faced no subsequent protests or recall effort, as Judge Persky had faced after sentencing Brock Turner to spend six months in jail in a sexual assault case.

The outcome in Higgins’ criminal case appears tethered to a culture created by Jeff Rosen in the county where he has served as district attorney for over a decade. The same culture complained about by Public Defender Sajid Kahn and former DDA Daniel Chung who both took to campaigning against Rosen in a 2022 district attorney’s race. An election Rosen won in the primary.

In addition to his political challenge, Daniel Chung sued DA Jeff Rosen in federal court for violating his civil rights. Chung publicly claims Rosen has created a toxic culture in the district attorney’s office that is particularly harmful for crime victims.

A federal lawsuit was filed after Chung was suspended from the DA’s office, without pay. DA Rosen claimed Chung was suspended for sending an Op-Ed to the San Jose Mercury from his government email account. Chung’s claims are being litigated, as are Jeff Rosen’s denials, in a federal matter assigned to the Northern District in San Francisco.

Chung, who had once been presented awards from Jeff Rosen himself, now claims Rosen has created an atmosphere of incompetence and corruption that serves to deny both criminal defendants and crime victim’s due process.  Chung’s lawsuit also alleges he was treated unfairly and faced retaliation after penning a San Jose Mercury Op-Ed critical of his boss in the exercise of his First Amendment Rights.

District Attorney Trips Up Political Opponents

During the 2022 political debates, Jeff Rosen was repeatedly heard acting unprofessionally, and outright rude to Mr. Chung. DA Rosen refused to shake Chung’s hand following debates and caused Chung to trip on one occasion.  Rosen only apologized for tripping a political opponent after Sajid Kahn insisted. Rosen additionally made snide comments about Chung’s mental health in public forums.

As Rosen demanded Chung’s suspension over misuse of a government email account for one Op-Ed, Rosen was silent on the public records that reveal his top staffers sent and received over 500 emails to and from Stanford Law professor Michele Dauber during the prosecution of Brock Turner and related Persky recall.

Dauber and the District Attorney’s Emails

Photo: Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber captured stealing a sign from a counter protestor at a 2016 rally supporting the Recall of Judge Persky as DAO Public Information Officer Sean Webby appears to play lookout.

Shortly before Higgins took Mr. Starkey’s life, a public records request produced over 500 emails between Stanford law professor Michele Dauber and eight DA Office employees, including top prosecutors and public information officer, Sean Webby.

Public records show Rosen’s favored employees used government email accounts for personal and political communications with Michele Dauber during the prosecution of Brock Turner and recall of Judge Persky, which DA Rosen claimed to oppose.

Dauber email link: https://www.documentcloud.org/Timothy Starkey’s friends and family members, along with victim advocacy groups, outraged over Higgins’ lientent sentence, were further inflamed after Higgins was captured  on social media a month into her GPS monitoring and restricted movement orders had been put in place, dancing on a stage in Los Angeles, with celebrities and activists including  Barbara Streisand and Alyssa Milano.documents/6592564-Michele-Dauber-Communications-with-Santa-Clara?responsive=1&title=1

The Dauber emails suggest DDA Alaleh Kianerci, DDA Cindy Hendrickson, DDA Terry Harman, DA Public Information Officer, Sean Webby and Jeff Rosen himself, worked with Dauber on editing Channel Miller’s victim statement, employed policies that interfered with newsgathering activities and appeared to coordinate efforts to take down Twitter and social media accounts of those who opposed the Persky recall.

Over 500 emails show communications between Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber and the DA’s Office

Victims of domestic violence regularly complain that the police and local district attorney consistently fails to act in a manner to protects them from actual and potential abuse.  Local victim advocates report never being given the access and public resources Dauber was given by government employees for a crime victim they assisted through the criminal court process.

The Dauber emails show government attorneys, the DA’s public information officer, and the district attorney himself used public resources to assist Dauber and Higgins Bradanini with their political efforts to recall a judge over a lenient sentence in a sexual assault case.

No public records, or information in the local news, shows these DAO staffers being disciplined for misusing their government email accounts as Daniel Chung recently was after exercising his First Amendment Rights to criticize the district attorney and DA office policies in a San Jose Mercury News Op-Ed, sent from his government email account.

Public Information Officer’s Restraining Order

Produced along with the Dauber emails were court records related to a temporary restraining order requested by Stephen White who sought protection from DA Jeff Rosen’s Public Information Officer, PIO, Sean Webby.  A temporary order was in effect as Webby, a former San Jose Mercury reporter, had nominated Jeff Rosen in the same election, and was handling media inquiries related to the prosecution of Brock Turner and related press conferences and rallies organized on behalf of his boss and political nominee, Jeff Rosen.

In his reply to Steve White’s request, Webby revealed DAO policies used at press conferences and rallies organized Dauber that appear to chill speech and newsgathering activities of reporters and news outlets not associated with the San Jose Mercury or news outlets known and favored by Webby and his boss.

Caught on Camera 

A grainy video shot by Steve White shows that during a 2016 rally organized by Dauber and Higgins Bradanini, Webby was also present.  In the video Webby can be scene pointing White out to Dauber. Almost immediately Dauber rushed White and took his sign as Webby looked on.

That video was used in obtaining the 2016 temporary restraining order against Sean Webby.  Two years later it was used as the basis of a civil rights lawsuit White filed against Dauber, Higgins Bradanini and Sean Webby.

 

Have Gavel Will Travel 

On February 5, 2018, as the political campaign to recall Judge Persky raged on in Santa Clara County, Jennifer Higgins Bradanini’s husband Bret filed for the divorce.

The family court assigned Judge James Towery to the case. An assignment questioned by court insiders, given the long standing personal and political relationship James Towery had with DA Rosen.

A relationship dating back to 2010, when Jim Towery was Jeff Rosen’s lawyer in a matter related to his campaign statement and the San Jose Mercury.

Jenny Higgins Bradanini retained divorce attorney Constance Carpenter; a lawyer Judge Towery is known to favor.  Signs of favorable treatment Higgins received in her divorce case before Judge Towery are best be seen in court filings. Those files show, Higgins’ ex-husband asked Judge Towery to issue a routine order requiring Higgins to work toward being self- supporting in a manner that provided support for the couple’s children.

At the time of Bret Bradanini’s request, court files show his former wife claimed to only be working for pay 1-3 hours per week, despite her children being teenagers.  Higgins notes she spent an exhaustive amount of time working on the San Jose Women’s March and campaign to Recall Judge Persky, which she and her attorney repeatedly labeled as “community service”.

When Judge Towery declined Bret Bradanini’s request, it provided for Higgins to focus all of her time and political energy on the June 5, 2018, recall of Judge Persky.  Later, the community service Higgins claimed to have would be used for her personal benefit to avoid jail.

Taxpayer Funded Private Judges and Family Real Estate 

The Bradanini divorce moved at a typical pace through the courts, until October 2018. The docket shows court attorney and settlement conference officer Sharon Roper was appointed as a limited purpose private judge, at taxpayers’ expense to handle the splitting spouses’ real estate disputes.

Sharon Roper’s appointment came at a time when Roper, District Attorney Jeff Rosen and several Intero real estate executives were embroiled in litigation related to allegations that family court attorneys were working in concert to liquidate family home equity in connection with a divorce, probate or domestic violence action filed in the Santa Clara family court. The lawsuit is consistent with a pattern seen in other cases where appeals and federal lawsuits are not filed.

Sharon Roper was hired by Santa Clara Superior Court in 2016 and is appointed on a regular basis to deal with real estate equity contained in family homes. A court appointment provides Roper the power to appoint Intero real estate agents to sell a family home.

Have Gavel Will Travel

On the eve of fatal 2019 accident, the Bradanini divorce was moved before private judge James Cox. After Cox’s appointment, the docket and hearings in the divorce case ceased being publicly noticed. A pattern seen in Santa Clara high asset divorce, custody and probate matters.

The Bradanini divorce docket also shows that three days after Mr. Starkey was killed, when Jennifer Higgins was clearly distraught, the Bradaninis expanded a private judge’s authority, and a final divorce judgment was filed the same day.

Attorney James Cox, once employed with the court in the position now occupied by Sharon Roper, gave no public notice of the cases where he was privately paid to act as a judge. A manual audit of local court files show Cox presided in at least 210 cases as a privately paid judge.

In 2018 when he was appointed in the Bradanini divorce case, none of Cox’s private judge dockets or hearings were publicly noticed in the courthouse, as required by law under California Rules of Court 2.834. The cost of James Cox’s private judging services and conflicts were concealed on what appears to be secret dockets.

A website promoting James Cox’s private judge services deceptively implies that using an attorney as a private judge is a private and secret process, which it is not. Further, Cox who advertises his “Have Gavel Will Travel Services” notices his office as a PO Box. It is unclear where he held formal hearings in the Bradanini divorce that the public and press were entitled to watch.

Attorney James Cox previously held the employment position at the court now held by Sharon Roper. Since that time, a manual audit of the cases where he was privately paid to be a judge shows that Cox acted in the divorce cases of DOJ prosecutors, former DA employees, Intero real estate and Silicon Valley tech executives.

James Cox even acted is a private judge in the divorce case of the court’s attorney, Lisa Herrick, for a special discount.

Photo: Center left Santa Clara Superior Court Attorney Lisa Herrick socializes with divorce lawyers and court staff as James Cox, the private judge used in her personal divorce, stands in the background holding papers.

The court docket in the Bradanini divorce, shows Bret’s lawyer withdrew in early 2020. However, by 2022, a proof of service filed in the court shows Bret had retained counsel was requesting financial information from his ex-wife.  A post-judgment filing that seemingly indicates a former spouse may be questioning the financial disclosures made in a case before a private judge. Judge Towery remains assigned to the case.

Michele Dauber, Sean Webby and Higgins Bradanini named in Civil Rights Lawsuit 

Legal troubles for Jenny Higgins were not limited to her divorce and criminal case. A 2018 case filed by Stephen “Steve” White claimed Higgins, along with DAO employee Sean Webby and Michele Dauber violated his civil rights during the political campaign to recall Judge Persky.

Stephen P. White sued Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber, Sean Webby and Jennifer Higgins Bradanini claiming they violated his civil rights during their political activities connected with the June 5, 2018, Santa Clara County election.

White’s civil case against Dauber, Webby and Higgins Bradanini limped through the courts, during the pandemic, as the Bradanini divorce, and unrelated criminal prosecution resolved. White’s civil case appeared doomed from the moment it was brought by a plaintiff who could not afford a lawyer.

The complaint, partially handwritten, and typed with several spelling and grammatical errors, was typical of a self-represented litigant. These lawsuits are rarely won by self-represented litigants if the other side is able to hire an attorney.

In addition to having legal counsel, defendant Dauber appears to have solicited the services of her employer, Stanford University, to keep White from conducting investigations on the Stanford campus and seemingly assisting Dauber in avoiding service which is required for a lawsuit to formally begin.

Dauber and Higgins Bradanini responded to White’s allegations, by hiring lawyers to file Anti-Slapp lawsuits, which allowed them to legally block White’s lawsuit.

As he was unable to pay his own lawyer, the court ordered White to pay Dauber $12,613.84 in attorney’s fees after her lawyers and prevailed on the Slapp lawsuit. Stanford’s Constitutional Law professor Michele Dauber used a court process to effectively kick White and his civil rights claims out of court, which many argue further chilled his speech when it came to issues related to Dauber’s misdeeds during the 2018 political campaign she ran with Higgins Bradanini to recall a judge.

In 2021, before she accepted the sweetheart plea deal from the Santa Clara DA, Higgins asked a judge to order White to pay her lawyers, $6,297.50. According to the court record, Higgins forgot to properly notice White, so will have to ask again.

Arguably, the relationships Bradanini and Dauber formed during their respective political activities influenced the local media, lawyers and even law enforcement connected to matters of public interest. The entirety of which is hard to measure, except of course for Timothy Starkey’s family members and friends.

Susan Bassi is an investigative journalist who has been investigating the use of private judges in California’s middle class and high asset divorce, custody and probate matters for nearly a decade. As part of a Diversion Program offered by Santa Clara County Superior Court, Susan has agreed to provide 45 hours of pro bono work to the Davis Vanguard as an effort to bring greater public awareness about private judging, domestic violence, policing and the importance of local news. To support this series, please donate to Davis Vanguard a 501 3 c Charity #46-3013126

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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